Theses Bachelor's

The Unhabitual Ideal: William James' Quest for Moral Strenuousness, 1891-1910

Klug, Samuel Stearns

This essay explores elements of the ethical and political thought of William James (1842-1910) in the last two decades of his life. It examines James' writings and political activities, especially his involvement in the anti-imperialist movement against the American occupation of the Philippines, in the context of the cultural and social upheaval of turn-of-the-century America. Rather than attempting to place James in a specific ideological category, a task that has bedeviled historians for the last century, this essay provides a new framework for examining James' ethics and politics. James approached the social challenges of the 1890s and 1900s through a quest for what I call "moral strenuousness," an ethical perspective that denied philosophical determinism and rejected an optimistic faith in cultural progress. James defined this ideal against both the commercialized culture he saw as dominating American life and the imperialistic and militaristic conceptions of the "strenuous life" advanced by Theodore Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. James' pursuit of an ideal of moral strenuousness further intersected with his commitment to pluralism, on a metaphysical as well as a social or cultural level. This essay illustrates how the interactions between these two ethical priorities shaped William James' thought and his engagement in public affairs from 1891 to 1910.

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Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 23, 2012